Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 18 2010 9:28 AM

Literature's First Unreliable Narrator

The unexpected lessons of The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

(Continued from Page 1)

Mason's fragment prods us to second thoughts. This is a hero, after all, who, upon returning home to Ithaca, goes off on one of literature's wildest lying sprees. To his wife, father, and household staff, Odysseus tells a series of tall tales, ostensibly to test everyone's allegiance. But his stories are far more intricate and embroidered with detail than is necessary for that purpose. He even tries to put one over on Athena, telling the goddess—disguised as a local shepherd boy—that he's a Cretan fugitive.  "You terrible man," Athena replies. "Foxy, ingenious, never tired of twists and tricks—so, not even here, on native soil, would you give up/those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart!" No less an authority than his Olympian patron thinks the guy is incorrigible.

Mason is hardly the first to pick up on this strangeness. How to understand Odysseus' lies has been at the heart of retellings going back to the 5th century B.C. Sophocles cast him as a hero in Ajax and a villain   in Philoctetes. Virgil, claiming the Trojans as ancestors of Rome, called Ulysses cruel and deceitful. Dante (who didn't know Homer's work directly) followed Virgil's lead, placing him in the deepest reaches of hell, his punishment for the treacheries perpetrated during the Trojan War.

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Mason isn't interested in making a moral judgment. In Odysseus, he's found a kindred spirit: a supremely talented storyteller forever dreaming up new material. The effect of reading The Lost Books is to make you realize that it's not just its narrative of homecoming that makes The Odyssey so archetypal. It's also that the poem captures the irrepressible human impulse to tell stories. And, perhaps, to favor a good story over a strictly accurate one.

In Mason's final fragment, Odysseus, grown old and restless, decides to embark on one final journey, though naturally he must first clear it with his faithful wife. In a single sentence—an example of the economy with which these familiar characters are brought to new life throughout the novel—Mason paints a wry portrait of domestic life with the wiliest of Greeks:

I saw her formulate an objection (she would miss me and believed I was more comfortable with her around), conceal it (because she didn't want to be a shrew and thought she'd have a better chance of getting her way indirectly), put on an expression of mild inquiry (to avoid revealing her indirect intentions with a conspicuous blankness) and finally see in my face that I had followed her chain of thought, which made her smile.

She can never get him to take out the garbage either. His wife persuaded, Odysseus leaves port, though unlike Tennyson's Ulysses, who sets out at the end of his life "To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/ Of all the Western stars," Mason's Odysseus heads east, retracing his fateful journey back from Troy. When he arrives finally at that city, he approaches its walls with shield raised. But the man who once conspired to bring Troy to its knees goes unrecognized and is welcomed into its streets. There he observes actors dressed as Hector and Achilles, pantomiming their legendary battle with wooden swords. Just then, a third actor arrives, "his face made up in a leer of cruel cunning." It's Odysseus. The city has forgotten him, but his story—a version of it anyway—survives.

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